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On 31 occasions over the past five years, Scottish Government ministers have proclaimed officially in parliamentary time that education is the Scottish National Party’s top priority. In those five years, only six times has the SNP has chosen to debate school education in its business time and there was no debate on schools in SNP debating time in 2018 and 2019. That represents a significant mismatch, just as there is a significant mismatch between some of the SNP’s current rhetoric about education standards and what is happening in schools.
Before we have the usual accusations thrown at us by the SNP that the Opposition parties are always talking down Scotland’s schools, I say that the Opposition parties have no difficulty in agreeing with the Scottish Government when it cites some of the encouraging aspects of attainment in Scottish schools: the three quarters of higher candidates who passed with A, B or C grades and the one quarter who achieved an A grade in 2019; the improvement in national 5 results in 2019, after the fall in 2018; the increase in the number of young people taking advanced highers, provided that they are lucky enough to be in a school or hub that still offers them; and the fact that the recent programme for international student assessment—PISA—reading score was better than the previous set of statistics, even if it was not back to 2012 levels. I wonder, however, what the Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills makes of the comments about PISA that were made by his colleague Carol Monaghan MP. I will come to that a wee bit later.
What we will not do is agree with the SNP when it says, repeatedly, that Scotland’s schools are producing
“a strong set of results” and that any recent concerns about the higher are down to annual variation. The cabinet secretary knows fine well, as do his officials and our education experts across Scotland of whatever political hue, that Scottish schools are facing serious challenges. That is why the Opposition parties continue to use a great deal of debating time and questions at First Minister’s question time to scrutinise the SNP’s record on education.
It is precisely because we do not feel that there has been sufficient transparency over or acceptance of the nature of the challenges that our schools are facing—serious challenges that do not sit easily with the persistent Scottish Government rhetoric that Scottish schools are consistently doing well across the board. That is plainly not accurate, and parents, teachers, young people, education experts, employers and Opposition parties do not believe that it is accurate.
Our frustration is that it has proved extremely difficult to get answers to some key questions. Such frustration extends to all parties on the Education and Skills Committee, which concluded unanimously in recent reports that there is a complete lack of clarity over who is responsible for decision making about the curriculum. We put that issue to the cabinet secretary in our committee meeting on 27 November. To give an example, Johann Lamont asked in the committee on 18 January 2017 who took the decision that the national 4 qualification should not be externally examined and on what criteria that decision was made. No answer was forthcoming; indeed, we are still waiting.
Likewise, if we go through the transcripts of the Education and Skills Committee meetings over the past two years, and the official letters that our convener, Clare Adamson, has had to issue to the education agencies, there have been no fewer than nine occasions on which key questions from committee members have not been adequately addressed and the convener has had to ask the agencies again for the key information to be sent in.
On other occasions, key education officers have been unable to come up with what ought to have been essential information. I cite the example on 3 April 2019, when I asked a senior officer in Education Scotland where the greatest impact on subject choice was being felt due to teacher shortages. He said that he could not tell me. Surely that is a key question for our schools and our parents. It impacts heavily on the school curriculum, on the prevalence of multilevel teaching—we will be supporting Iain Gray’s amendment on that this afternoon—on teacher workload and on the ability of schools to address additional support issues.
I will come to the four-year decline in higher pass rates, which we know, thanks to freedom of information material, was a cause of considerable concern to Mr Swinney’s officials. It was not just an issue to do with annual variation, as he told us on 6 August, or why would he have commissioned an investigation? The First Minister told Jackson Carlaw—
I will in a minute.
Perhaps the cabinet secretary can answer my question. The First Minister told Jackson Carlaw that he should apologise for asking about the issue. My response is to ask why. Why on earth should he apologise? All Jackson Carlaw wanted to know, as did the rest of us, was what Mr Swinney’s officials had said was the reason for the four-year decline. Given that they clearly advised him that there was a problem, we wanted to know what he was going to do about it.
The point that the First Minister was making to Mr Carlaw in Parliament last week was that he had suggested that new information had been produced over the Christmas break—that was the foundation of his question to the First Minister last week—when in fact, I had, for a considerable period of time, addressed the issues in response to questions that were asked by Liz Smith herself at the Education and Skills Committee meeting on 27 November.
I am interested in hearing from Liz Smith what steps she believes have not been taken by the Government to address the implications and recommendations of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development review in 2015, which she supported when it was published?
I am interested in the reasons that the cabinet secretary’s officials uncovered for the four-year decline in the higher pass rates. During the committee meeting that the cabinet secretary referred to, I asked him to tell us what his concerned officials believed to be the problem. I have the transcript here. I got told about what the cabinet secretary and education agencies are doing to help teachers
“better understand the standards expected of them and better support them to achieve enhanced learning”, but I was not told, and neither was Jackson Carlaw, what the specific problem was. I will ask again whether the Parliament would not be better off if we had an assessment of what the problem is, especially as it relates to the so-called gold standard of Scottish education, and what we are going to do about it.
I am grateful to Liz Smith for giving way for a second time.
I will publish the outline of the information that was gathered as part of this exercise—I was going to confirm that in my speech, but I am happy to confirm it now. Fundamentally, it relates to issues that Liz Smith cited and what I said to the Education and Skills Committee, which was that the conclusion of the analysis was that it is important to ensure that we constantly support the understanding of standards. That is what the Scottish Qualifications Authority is currently engaged in doing, as Liz Smith would expect. Further, we are taking steps to ensure that there is support available to enhance learning and teaching which, as she understands, is central to the education process.
Education Scotland, the SQA, our regional improvement collaboratives and local authorities are jointly taking forward that work as part of what I ask Parliament to understand and accept is an annual exercise—a habitual exercise—to review performance in the education system and ensure that we are addressing any weaknesses that persist.
Thank you, Presiding Officer.
I am grateful to the cabinet secretary and I am pleased to hear that he will publish that information, because it is essential, particularly ahead of the review of the senior phase that he has commissioned. It is just a pity that we did not get that information when we asked for it.
We know now that the cabinet secretary’s advisers in Education Scotland say that there needs to be a new narrative on the curriculum for excellence. The Scottish Conservatives called for that as far back as 2016, so we welcome the Scottish Government’s response to the Education and Skills Committee report saying that there are serious issues to be addressed.
I turn to the review of the senior phase. We welcome the fact that there will be a focus on some of the key issues that have been identified by the committee and, in particular, on secondary 4 curriculum choices, the prevalence of multilevel teaching, which we believe is as much to do with teacher shortages as anything else, and whether the plan to regard the senior phase as a three-year unit is working as it was intended.
In our view and in the view of most parents and employers, there remains a strong desire for more rigour in the teaching and examination of core subjects—the subjects that, as well as maths and English, represent the arts, sciences and social sciences. It has become an issue about the knowledge content and the ability of all pupils between S1 and S4, and probably also in S5, to have meaningful choices in each of those three faculty areas—not between them—so that there is breadth across the disciplines, as was always the main strength of the Scottish education system. Whether by design or as an unintended consequence, as a result of the move to five or six subjects in S4 instead of eight, a growing number of pupils are finding it impossible to achieve such breadth, and we know from the Education and Skills Committee’s survey of young people that they often end up unable to take the subjects that they want and which they feel that they need.
The Scottish Government’s response is that we should not view the modern curriculum across different year levels but should look at it more as a block across the three years, so that what matters is what is available as a package between S4 and S6, which makes it possible to study subjects in all the faculty areas. However, I am not persuaded that that is working well.
In the committee, Alasdair Allan made a good point about that in relation to languages. It is not a coincidence that there has been a sharp downturn in the numbers of young people taking modern languages, which, just like science, technology, engineering and maths—STEM—subjects, are so crucial to the future of the economy. He made the point that it is not an easy option for young people to drop a language in early senior school and to come back to it later, because they lose essential continuity.
There is another issue here, which is possibly unintended, although I am not so sure, given the comments that we have occasionally heard from SQA and Education Scotland. The issue is the desire to bring on board new subjects and skills. The pendulum has swung away from the more traditional curriculum, and knowledge-based learning has not had the focus that it deserves. It is important that we have a debate about that. Does it mean that we should be a little bit more prescriptive about the core curriculum? Yes, it probably does. It is important that the senior phase examines that issue. It is not about going back to old curriculum models for five to 14 or standard grades, but it is a case of resetting the curriculum for excellence. Let us remember that considerable concern has been expressed that we ended up with a curriculum design that was led by the qualifications agency rather than by teachers and curriculum specialists.
That is a serious point because, if the review of the senior phase is to be fully effective, we also have to look at the broad general education and how that articulates with the senior phase. Jenny Gilruth has raised the issue of articulation several times in the committee, and she was absolutely right to do so. On 3 April 2019, she asked some very reasonable and straightforward questions about national 5 courses comprising 160 hours—how effective timetabling would happen and whether that, in effect, meant that there was a tension between the ethos of the broad general education and what the SQA was advising was appropriate for the structure of the senior phase. It is perfectly legitimate to ask about that, and I hope that that will also be considered very carefully.
Mr Swinney rightly acknowledges that he is ultimately responsible for decision making in education. The public agree. However, the public share our frustration that, despite all the undoubted talent in Scotland’s schools, we are not performing as well as we should be. The OECD came to that conclusion back in 2015. Mr Swinney has seen the newspaper headlines, and he has read the many recent commentaries, including those from teachers on the ground, about where education in Scotland needs to improve. He must surely recognise, just like the rest of us, that there is a long way to go before Scotland can once again lead the world and before there can be indisputable justification for the Scottish Government to claim that Scotland’s schools are producing
“a strong set of results”.
That the Parliament welcomes the acceptance by the Scottish Government that, following the unanimous conclusions reached by the Education and Skills Committee in its report,
Subject choices in schools
, which highlighted significant concerns regarding subject choice in many schools and their impact on hardworking teachers and young people, there should be a full review of the senior phase of the curriculum for excellence; calls for a full review of broad general education and how it articulates with the senior phase, but believes however that this review can only succeed if there is an accompanying acceptance from the Scottish Government that there are some key weaknesses in some key aspects of Scotland’s school education and the qualifications structure that challenge its claim that Scotland’s schools are producing “a strong set of results”.
I thank Liz Smith for the manner in which she has addressed the subject today, which enables us to embark on a constructive discussion. With just a little bit of tongue in cheek, I say to her that she need only vote for my amendment to get a Government debate on education.
For factual accuracy, I point out that the new narrative on curriculum for excellence was published on 9 September last year. I hope that Liz Smith is aware of that, because it is material to the issues that we are discussing.
Curriculum for excellence is designed to fulfil a range of young people’s needs. It is about equipping young people with fundamental skills in literacy, numeracy and health and wellbeing; developing the young person as a whole—their achievements and skills alongside exam results or qualifications; and providing a wider range of options and pathways to young people through their education up to and including S6. It is designed to be flexible—it can be tailored to the needs of every young person, no matter their background, interests, confidence or skill set—and it supports and promotes the highest standards of academic attainment and achievement.
Obviously, some of the issues that Liz Smith has raised in relation to inserting a greater degree of prescription into the curriculum would challenge some of those points. There is a debate to be had about where Parliament wishes to be on the issue, because it overwhelmingly supported the curriculum for excellence principles that I have just outlined, and it reinforced them in 2016, when it debated the OECD report on Scottish education and the Conservatives supported the Government’s analysis of that report.
I put on record that I did not view the OECD report in 2015 as a glowing endorsement of Scottish education and that I did not think that there was nothing to be done to improve Scottish education—far from it. I have spent most of the past four years, as the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills, addressing the OECD’s recommendations in order to strengthen the focus on learning and teaching and to ensure that there is a clearer understanding of what is expected in the curriculum through the publication of the benchmarks and by the simplification of the curriculum. I accept that, in its formulation period, the curriculum was wordy and more detailed and that it had to be slimmed down. We have done exactly that.
The Conservatives have no problem—indeed, no party in the Parliament has any problem—with agreeing the principles of curriculum for excellence. What we have a problem with is the delivery. I think that many SNP members have a problem with that, too. If the cabinet secretary’s officials are advising that there should be a new narrative, what does he think they are referring to?
It was the OECD that recommended that we should have a new narrative. The new narrative essentially reinforces what is, for me, the central element of curriculum for excellence, which is young people’s achievement of the four capacities in becoming responsible citizens, effective contributors, successful individuals and confident individuals.
Those four capacities lie at the heart of curriculum for excellence. The advice that we received was to reinforce them, so that they would drive many of the aspects of interdisciplinary learning that are central to the effective broad general education that must be the entitlement of every young person in Scotland. I have absolutely no desire to narrow the educational range of our young people; rather, I would vigorously defend the broad general education’s being sufficiently extensive to ensure that they are able to achieve their full potential.
That is a hard question to answer. In some circumstances, and if we look at the situation in an abstract way, fewer choices can be made in S4 in the sense that schools will have opted to present young people for six qualifications rather than for eight. Such judgments are left to educators at a local level, in our schools, which is one of the fundamental points of school—
A fundamental element of the principles of an empowered school system is that we enable educators at a local level to make the judgments that are most appropriate for young people. In an abstract sense, Liz Smith’s point is true of S4. However, she also correctly explained my position. The senior phase is a three-year one, and young people’s achievements should be assessed at the end of that process—not at one intermediary stage at the end of S4.
I will, in a moment.
Let me address the final point that Liz Smith raised with me, which was about the balance between knowledge and skills in the curriculum. I cannot imagine that there is a single person in the Parliament who does not believe that education needs to be founded on the acquisition of knowledge and skills. I completely accept that position. My view is that the balance is correct within curriculum for excellence, but I am always open to debate on that. I do not think that it is a question of—as is often put to me by commentators from south of the border—our needing to have a knowledge-based curriculum rather than one that is based on skills. I do not accept that that should be an either/or choice, because young people need to be equipped for a constantly changing world.
I am happy to give way to Ms Marra now.
I thank the cabinet secretary for giving way, but I take issue with his assertion that the point is abstract or limited to a school’s discretion. In the Dundee City Council area, the local authority has mandated that schools should not offer more than six subjects at S4, because the cuts mean that they cannot afford to teach more than that number. What does the cabinet secretary say to that?
I enthusiastically and energetically support the empowerment of schools to make such decisions. However, local authorities around the country have taken different positions and have left different levels of discretion to individual schools. As we work our way through the empowerment agenda, we should stress the importance of putting control over making such decisions into the hands of educators.
I am afraid that Mr Findlay will have to forgive me if I do not. I must cover a bit more ground first.
I would like to put on record a whole host of information about improvements in achievement of curriculum for excellence levels, the closure of the attainment gap and the qualifications that have been achieved by young people. I will come back to those points later in my remarks. First, let me address some of the issues at the heart of the Conservative motion, which calls for a review of the broad general education. This is where I say to members that we must be careful about what we support today.
In 2015, we undertook a review of the broad general education that commanded wide support in the Parliament. A report on the review was produced by the OECD, whose recommendations we are in the process of implementing. We have now committed to undertaking a review of the senior phase. I have consulted the Education and Skills Committee on the remit of that review, and I am coming to my own conclusions on it. One of the issues that we will consider is the articulation and the transition between the broad general education and the senior phase. The achievements that are expected of young people in the broad general education are crystal clear: they are encapsulated in the benchmarks that are available to all schools across the relevant curricular areas, which set out what we expect young people to have experienced before they embark on the senior phase.
The OECD completed a comprehensive review of the broad general education as a whole in 2015 and produced a 176-page report. We have been working with partners to take forward that review’s recommendations, which included improving assessment, strengthening standards through the development of benchmarks and developing a refreshed narrative for curriculum for excellence. Now is not the moment to revisit the broad general education other than with regard to its relationship to the senior phase. There are transition issues that we will look at in reviewing the senior phase, but they do not merit a separate broad general education review at this stage given that we have already tested the issues in 2015. I genuinely invite the Conservatives to support my amendment, which enables us to address that issue.
The Parliament has asked me to undertake a senior phase review and I have agreed to do that. The transition issues between the broad general education and the senior phase are the issues that we need to satisfy ourselves about, having recently undertaken a review of the broad general education. [
] I ask Mr Mundell to allow me to complete the point. He will appreciate that changing the education system does not happen instantaneously and that a five-year period is a relatively short period—educationally speaking—for us to see the development of progress in.
I invite the Conservatives to reflect on whether it is necessary and justifiable to have another review of the broad general education when we have just completed such an exercise and are currently implementing its recommendations.
The Government believes that important progress has been made in Scottish education. Performance is increasing—that has been independently validated and we have seen the evidence of it—and we are open to the challenge of strengthening and improving Scottish education as is necessary. That is what I spend my time trying to deliver. I invite the Parliament to support my amendment, which proposes a coherent way of addressing those issues that does not disrupt the Scottish education system.
I move amendment S5M-20415.3, to leave out from “calls for a full review” to end and insert:
“recalls the OECD review of broad general education in 2015 and the steps taken to implement the recommendations, including improving assessment, strengthening standards through the development of benchmarks and developing a refreshed narrative for the curriculum for excellence; notes ongoing work to reduce the burden of assessment and teacher workload through improvements to qualifications; welcomes the wider range of pathways, awards and qualifications available to young people, for example through Foundation Apprenticeships; notes ongoing improvements to learning and teaching, supported by regional improvement collaboratives; recognises the range of evidence of improvement published through the National Improvement Framework evidence report in December 2019, and believes that a full debate on a Scottish Government motion on improving Scottish education should take place to coincide with the visit in Spring 2020 of the OECD team to Scotland as part of their review of the senior phase, subject to the normal Parliamentary Bureau procedures and agreement by the Parliament.”
It is a new year and a new decade, but here we are, still dependent on Opposition time for a debate on schools and education. Not only two parliamentary years but—Liz Smith is right—two full calendar years have passed before the Scottish Government has seen fit to bring its policy and performance on schools to the chamber for debate. After all that time, to lodge a Government amendment promising a debate “sometime soon” is a bit pathetic. That is too little too late, and it is too vague.
That reluctance to debate school policy has a certain irony about it, because—the cabinet secretary is absolutely right—there is widespread agreement on the principles of curriculum for excellence, which have commanded broad and enduring support, including cross-party support, throughout the years. That is because they emerged from a comprehensive and open national debate that was launched by Cathy Jamieson 19 years ago, which engaged across Scottish society and beyond. The strength of curriculum for excellence has always been the breadth of support for its principles. Its weakness has been in its implementation during a period of sustained cuts to resources and teacher numbers, which have caused enormous strain on teaching staff and created distortions in the curriculum.
The situation has been exacerbated by the late introduction in policy making—before the SNP was responsible for such matters—of the three-year general education phase, which did not emerge from the national education debate, and by the later reform of the exam system, which took place once the SNP had taken over stewardship of our education system. As Larry Flanagan of the Educational Institute of Scotland made clear in his evidence to the Education and Skills Committee, reform of the exam system was not a requirement of curriculum for excellence and has struggled to fit with it.
The consequences—unintended, perhaps, but consequences nonetheless—of all that have been laid bare in the Education and Skills Committee’s report on subject choice and the evidence behind it. As a result of the fact that pupils can choose fewer subjects to study to exam level, the breadth of the curriculum, which the Scottish school system has always been so proud of, is being narrowed. If the current trend continues, some subjects will be squeezed out of the curriculum altogether.
Does Mr Gray accept the evidence that I presented to the Education and Skills Committee that, in the three-year senior phase, as I mentioned to Liz Smith, young people have the opportunity to complete more certificated qualifications than was the case when Mr Gray and I were at school, as a result of the nature of that three-year phase? Does he accept that that approach provides young people with wider opportunities?
What matters is not just the studying of subjects but the level to which pupils can study them. All the evidence that the Education and Skills Committee received pointed to a narrowing of what it was possible to achieve within the school year. I will come back to that.
A second consequence is the fact that the teaching in a single class of exam courses at two, three or even four different levels has become endemic and, in some schools, the norm.
As the cabinet secretary has just demonstrated, he has not been open in his response to those problems. First, he denied altogether that subject choice was narrowing at all. He then diverted to claiming that pupils could choose from a wider range of courses—which is a different thing altogether, as he well knows. Today, he dismissed the concerns about the narrowing of the curriculum by saying that it was only an abstract narrowing. What on earth does that mean? For pupils who get only one chance at school, the fact that they can do fewer exams is not abstract; it is real.
Mr Gray is wrong to say that young people cannot study for qualifications at different levels if they participate in a three-year senior phase. They might do six national 5s in S4, but they can do other national 5s at other stages in their senior phase if they choose to do so.
I understand that that is the theory, but the evidence that the committee received is that that is not the reality. For example, we were given very specific evidence that that is not the reality in modern languages.
The Government claims that multilevel teaching has always happened, which is simply not true except in the case of standard grade courses, which were specifically designed for that style of teaching. The truth is that not one shred of evidence has been presented to the committee that multilevel teaching is desirable for educational reasons. All the evidence suggests that it is covering for a lack of teaching resources. Only this week, Professor Yellowlees of the learned societies group on Scottish STEM education has written of the learned societies’ concern about the damage that multilevel teaching is doing to STEM teaching.
The Government claims that what matters is outcomes, yet it has dismantled the long-term statistical runs of performance data that we had by abolishing the literacy and numeracy survey and pulling out of some of the international surveys. National standardised tests have proven to be neither national nor standardised, so we are left with PISA scores and exam results. Our PISA literacy scores are 22 points lower than they were 20 years ago, and our maths and science performance is the worst that it has been since PISA began. Meanwhile, as Liz Smith said, pass rates at higher have declined for the past four years in a row.
Worst of all, those unintended consequences of the implementation of curriculum for excellence are not uniformly felt. The evidence shows that schools in deprived areas are more likely to limit the number of subjects that can be studied. The educationalist James McEnaney recently demonstrated that schools in the most affluent and high-performing areas generally avoid multilevel classes, whereas elsewhere all schools have such classes. In Dundee, for example, nearly 60 per cent of senior phase classes are multilevel.
Any dispassionate consideration of the evidence must conclude that, despite all the great work that goes on in schools and the efforts of teachers and pupils, they are being held back by the structure of the curriculum and the use of multilevel teaching, and that an insidious gap is developing to the disadvantage of those who face the greatest barriers anyway. That is at odds with the Government’s sincerely held policy of reducing that inequality.
The result is a slow but significant decline in some critical aspects of attainment. Until the cabinet secretary accepts that and the need to address it—his amendment would specifically remove from the motion such an acceptance—we will struggle to have confidence in the forthcoming review.
I support the motion, and I move amendment S5M-20415.2, to insert after “which highlighted significant concerns regarding subject choice in many schools”:
“, the systematic use of multi-level teaching,”.
In November, I asked the First Minister when the Government would bring forward a debate on school education. At that point, it had been almost two years to the day since the previous Government debate on what is happening in our schools. The Government’s avoiding debates on what it declares is its “defining mission” should be a cause for self-reflection, as should the fact that such issues have been aired and voted on only due to the work of Opposition parties.
More than two months after I asked the First Minister that question, no Government debate on school education has come forward. Today, we have a frankly bizarre scene, with the Deputy First Minister using an amendment to an Opposition motion to announce that there will be a debate at some point this spring. I will be generous and assume that there will be one this spring, regardless of whether the Government amendment is agreed to.
That is not going to happen, Deputy First Minister.
If that is how things work now, I would appreciate it if Mr Swinney could, this afternoon, confirm when the next debate after that will be, or maybe the one after that, too. After two years of avoidance, it seems only reasonable that the Government should catch up with the public demand for us to grapple with such issues. When will he bring forward debates on the crisis in additional support needs provision, on teacher recruitment, retention and workload or on the performance of the SQA and Education Scotland? I ask that question sincerely. On some of those issues, we can find common ground, and we have done so in the very recent past. Whether it will be defeated on the final vote should not be the Government’s primary concern.
Given the uncertainty over our next opportunity to discuss education issues, I would like to touch on a number of them today, starting with those referenced in Liz Smith’s motion. Last September, the Education and Skills Committee published our report on subject choice in schools. We agreed to undertake the inquiry because, despite investigations by journalists and academic analyses on narrowing subject choice and its apparent link to deprivation, the public bodies that are responsible were simply not taking the issue seriously.
When we discuss subject choice and availability, we tend to talk about two issues interchangeably: the number of subjects that students can take at any one time; and the number of subjects that are on offer to them from which they can select. Those issues are separate but related, and both were covered during the committee’s inquiry.
There is now clear evidence that the curriculum has narrowed in S4, at the start of the senior phase, with what appears to be a link between the relative affluence of an area and, for example, the number of national 5 courses that can be taken. Of equal concern is the evidence of restrictions in subject availability at higher level, which seem to map even more clearly against deprivation levels. S5 and S6 pupils in poorer areas simply have fewer higher subjects to select from. That situation has come about despite greater choice and opportunity in Scottish education being a key goal of curriculum for excellence when it was first developed. It looks as though implementation has achieved the opposite in some areas.
It was particularly clear from the committee’s inquiry into subject choice that we have barely scratched the surface. A range of lingering problems with the implementation of curriculum for excellence remain. There is a distinct lack of clarity in Scottish education about who is responsible for issues such as subject availability, and there is certainly continued confusion over the role of Education Scotland, which failed to provide adequate support for the implementation of CFE.
A defining theme, not just of the inquiry but of my three years on the committee, has been Education Scotland’s desire to shirk all responsibility and its refusal to acknowledge that problems even exist. Once we discount everything that it has tried to disown, I have been repeatedly left wondering what it is responsible for.
That lack of clear responsibility and ownership has led to inconsistencies in the structure of the curriculum, with some schools continuing the two-plus-two-plus-two model of the previous structure, rather than moving to the three-to-15 BGE and three-year senior phase of curriculum for excellence.
The disconnect between Education Scotland and the SQA was striking.
I am grateful to the Deputy First Minister for asking that question, as it is directly related to the point that I am about to make on the disconnect. Before we move ahead to resolving them, we need to ask questions about the inconsistencies in the current structure. As a result of that disconnect, one Government agency is responsible for deciding how many national 5s it is possible to take—whether there is a cap or a minimal threshold—and the other is responsible for setting the 160-hour course requirement. During the committee’s inquiry, that resulted in incoherent responses as to whether the 160-hour course requirement starts once pupils begin the senior phase or whether it begins before the senior phase, and thus moves into the BGE. We do not have clarity of distinction between those two areas.
When curriculum for excellence was developed, we had a broad national conversation and reached consensus. I am not minded to move towards prescription, but I want us to identify the problem and address seriously whether there is another solution. If there is another coherent solution, I would be minded to move towards it. However, until the Government concedes that there is a problem, how can we debate solutions?
This is where it comes back to political accountability and our ability to debate these issues in Parliament. The Scottish Government is ultimately responsible for the lack of leadership in the implementation of curriculum for excellence. Therefore, the Greens welcome the senior phase review and the indications that its remit will be wide enough to encompass the issues that we have raised—particularly the link between subject availability and deprivation. I would welcome unambiguous confirmation from the Government that that link will be examined.
However, we are clear that such issues cannot be examined in isolation. We must acknowledge that the implementation of curriculum for excellence took place—and continues to take place—in a period of austerity. That issue was raised repeatedly with Education Scotland in committee sessions, as it comes down whether it is possible for Education Scotland—during its inspections, for example—to acknowledge the financial reality and the impact that that has on subject choice or availability, or on teacher recruitment and retention. If we continue to address those issues in silos—that is, if we address them at all—there will not be a coherent response. I hope that, where Education Scotland has often failed, the senior phase review succeeds in being able to acknowledge those issues. I also hope that we will be back in the chamber soon to continue this important debate.
The Education and Skills Committee’s important inquiry into subject choice in schools offered the opportunity to share across the country the innovative work that is happening in curriculum design. It also highlighted the unintended consequences of the implementation of curriculum for excellence and where teacher shortages, lack of resources and a confused chain of accountability are creating a postcode lottery of opportunity.
I want to use my time to highlight concerning evidence that came from the committee’s inquiry, which I believe has not been properly addressed.
Page 60 of the committee report states:
“It is the unanimous view of the Committee that there is continuing confusion about the responsibilities of Education Scotland” and that Education Scotland
“is failing to provide adequate support for the continuing implementation of Curriculum for Excellence.”
Education Scotland describes its role as
“to support improvement; to provide assurance to parents and other stakeholders about the quality of education; and to provide evidence-based advice to Ministers.”
Last April, the Education and Skills Committee learned that Education Scotland holds worryingly little information on a number of key areas. On teacher numbers, one Education Scotland representative said:
“It is not our responsibility to know about teacher numbers in each school.”
On the number of pupils taking short courses, the same representative said:
“Education Scotland does not keep that information.”
On the reason behind the fall in pupils taking languages, we heard from another representative that
“It would be interesting to find out whether they do pick languages up later ... However, I do not have the data.” —[
Official Report, Education and Skills Committee,
3 April 2019; c 11, 9, 32.]
On the number of multilevel classes, which Labour’s amendment highlights, Education Scotland has no view on the consequences, and it does not keep information on the prevalence of such classes. It has done no equality impact assessment of consortia arrangements, despite calling them a good thing.
Those responses raise serious questions about Education Scotland’s competence. They are substantial policy areas, with potentially serious repercussions. For example, in response to a survey carried out as part of the subject choices inquiry, one pupil told the Education and Skills Committee about the consortia arrangements that they were working with:
“this year is my Advanced Higher year and I am having to sit two AH (Physics and Chemistry) at the neighbouring school while my third is AH maths which I am teaching to myself. I have had to take an extra higher just to have any subjects at all in my own school.”
Yet, without any impact assessment, Education Scotland is certain that consortia are a good thing. I struggle to see how that conclusion can be justified.
Staff working in Education Scotland are doing a lot of good work to drive improvement.
I am simply making the point that the statutory responsibility for the delivery of education at the local level lies with a local authority. That is what the law says.
The advice comes from Education Scotland and that is what local authorities put in place.
Staff in Education Scotland are doing a lot of good work to drive improvement in our schools, but by replacing the Scottish survey of literacy and numeracy with Scottish national standardised assessments, the Government has already created a data gap—perhaps unintentionally. In the context of that black hole of understanding, the body overseeing the implementation of the curriculum must have a better understanding of the policies that it recommends. There must be responsibility and accountability.
The quango is marking its own homework. It both sets the Scottish Government’s policy and carries out inspections. There is a fundamental conflict of interest, and Liberal Democrats do not trust that arrangement.
Only 28 per cent of Education Scotland’s employees said that they have confidence in its leadership. This is not the first time that Education Scotland’s competence has been questioned. In a Lib Dem debate in 2017, the Parliament voted for “serious consideration” to be given to separating Education Scotland’s inspection and policy functions, but there is little evidence that the Scottish Government gave that serious consideration.
On a similar note, the Parliament voted to cease standardised testing, so I am disappointed to see the Government fall back on the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development report of 2015 as a justification. The Government’s view has since been called a misinterpretation of the report by experts. I hope that the Government will not attempt to reassert that misinterpretation when it holds its first education debate in front of the OECD in the spring.
Surely the evidence presented to the Education and Skills Committee by pupils, parents, teachers, academics and officials, alongside the Scotland’s worst-ever programme for international student assessment results in science and maths, means that it is time for the Government to reconsider its opposition to re-establishing separate policy and inspection bodies.
I am pleased to speak in the debate. As the convener of the Education and Skills Committee, I am very proud of the work that the committee undertook on subject choice and agree that we produced a consensual report that reflected concerns that had been raised in the media.
The committee produced a robust report that asked the Government to undertake independent research on the senior phase, from third year to sixth year, of the curriculum for excellence. The Government agreed to the committee’s ask. I am therefore surprised and more than disappointed at the motion, which seems to seek to pre-empt the work being done by the Government to better understand that phase. As I said, the report was a robust piece of work. Had we been able to conclusively show that young people’s outcomes were being significantly damaged by the senior phase, that would have been in the report. We did not reach that conclusion and we did not see evidence to support it.
I am grateful to the convener of the Education and Skills Committee for taking an intervention. I entirely support the work that she has done in this area, but I am sure that she will agree, not least because it was a unanimous decision, that the committee asked serious questions that were not answered by the education agencies. Would she agree that that is part of the issue?
I agree that the committee’s work was robust and that those answers should be forthcoming. Nonetheless, the main goal was to establish a review of the senior phase, to understand the impact of the senior phase on young people and to see what was happening with the different curriculum models. We have to look at this in the context of outcomes and recognise the positive evidence that the committee took on curriculum for excellence.
Our report showed that there was a narrowing of subject choice in S4 in some schools, but whether that was damaging or limited young people’s ambitions is something that we have yet to establish and is what the review will show.
When we look at outcomes and the Office for National Statistics results on leaver destinations, we see an increase in the benefits to our young people. The leaver destinations statistical report published in June 2019 showed that 93.2 per cent of our young people were in positive destinations, which is up from 85.2 per cent in 2009-10.
That issue has been raised before and I know that the Government is undertaking to look at zero-hours contracts in that context.
The statistical report also shows that the number of pupils going on to further and higher education destinations has increased. The number in higher education destinations has increased from 34.2 per cent in 2009-10 to 39 per cent.
That is really important: it is an increase in the number of our young people who move on to an articulation route that could take them on to complete degrees and enter professions. The number of young people going into the workplace has also increased.
If we continually paint a picture of a failing education system, we are doing our young people, their schools and the hard work of our teachers an injustice.
I will not take another intervention, sorry.
The issue of teacher numbers has been raised. The Scottish Government has taken action on that, and we must recognise that the number of teachers has increased, that the teacher to pupil ratio is higher in Scotland than it is in any other part of the United Kingdom, and that work is being done to ensure that we have teachers in the areas where we are struggling. For example, our STEM bursaries, which offer support with career changes to people coming in to teach STEM subjects, have been greatly oversubscribed. Those bursaries support university initiatives to develop alternative routes into teaching STEM subjects.
Nothing is being done in a vacuum and no one is standing still as we examine how curriculum for excellence is working and progressing in reality.
Last week, I was delighted to visit Braidhurst high school in my constituency with the Deputy First Minster. Braidhurst, in North Lanarkshire, has a challenging catchment area and is very proud to be one of the Scottish Football Association’s performance schools, where pupils who are talented in football have an opportunity to undertake intensive training alongside their school studies.
It was absolutely clear from the visit that instilled in the participants in the SFA academy is a personal discipline and resolve that is carried into the ethos and life of Braidhurst as a whole. Indeed, the SFA team captain was also a house captain in the school. Curriculum for excellence has enabled the training to be timetabled in a column of choices to limit the impact of football training on the academic subjects that were chosen by the young people. That is an example of curriculum for excellence working in partnership with the school.
In all these debates, we have to recognise the developing the young workforce programme. Two of the captains took me on a tour of the school, and I was delighted that they wanted to talk to me about the foundation apprenticeship in digital media that they were taking at the local college. That is an example of how this is all working together. Skills and achievements in the final phase build capacity in young people and equip them for the world of work—through, for example, Duke of Edinburgh awards, volunteering and team building, as well as foundation apprenticeships. If we do not see those skills and achievements as being in the same category as the academic subjects, we do a disservice not only to our pupils and hard-working teachers but to the principles of the developing the young workforce programme and the Wood commission, which all parties in the chamber consensually signed up to.
In recent years, it has become increasingly apparent that the delivery of the curriculum for excellence is in need of reform.
Today’s motion mentions
“key weaknesses in some key aspects of Scottish school education”.
One of the most prominent issues is the fall in attainment at Scotland’s gold standard, the higher, which we have witnessed over the past four years. In 2016, the proportion of A to C grades was 77.6 per cent. It has fallen each year since, and 2019’s percentage stood at 74.8 per cent. Although I agree that single-year figures can vary, the sustained trend is the concern; if it continues unaddressed, within the next 10 years we will see a 10 per cent drop from 2016.
The rhetoric that is used by the SNP when the figures are announced is unhelpful. For example, it often brings up the number of pupils who have achieved at least one higher pass, but Reform Scotland’s commission on school reform said recently that there is “no explanation” for the SNP’s continued use of that measure. It said:
“One Higher pass does not seem to give access to opportunities in further or higher education that are not open to people without such a pass.”
An on-going issue with Scotland’s education system is the lack of system-wide data. In the past decade, the SNP has withdrawn Scotland from international surveys such as the third international mathematics and science survey and the progress in international reading literacy study. That was followed by the scrapping of the Scottish survey of literacy and numeracy.
T he SNP’s MSPs will say that standardised assessments provide us with more data than ever, but that is not quite accurate. Those assessments may provide teachers with diagnostic information that they can use to inform individual classroom decisions, but in terms of evaluating the education system, the commission on school reform said that they have
“done nothing to improve the quality of information available”.
It would be worth considering one factor that was raised several times in the Education and Skills Committee inquiry into subject choice: the disconnect between broad general education and the senior phase of senior school, about which there needs to be more transparency. The two phases do not sit alone, yet they do not complement each other. That is why the motion is right to call for a review of BGE with a particular focus on
“how it articulates with the senior phase”.
One of the concerns that arises from the disconnect is the reduction in the number of subjects that pupils can take in S4 and, through that, the increase in the use of multilevel teaching, in which different levels of education are combined into a single class—a problem that has been exacerbated by teacher shortages. Committee witnesses discredited that form of teaching. Larry Flanagan, the EIS general secretary, said:
“I do not think anyone on this panel would defend multilevel teaching in any subject area.”—[
Education and Skills Committee
, 8 May 2019; c 19.]
I know that SNP members are getting ready to say that multilevel teaching has been a long-standing part of Scottish education. That is not what I am talking about—I am discussing the recent explosion in its usage. That is one of the biggest complaints about the senior phase that the EIS receives from its teacher members. That was reinforced by the learned societies group on Scottish STEM education, which said in a written submission to the Education and Skills Committee that multilevel teaching is a
“prominent issue for the teaching of the sciences”.
It also said that science teachers have expressed concern that such teaching
“does not allow them to fully support the needs and aspirations of pupils undertaking different levels of national qualifications.”
Here are the facts. The EIS general secretary has said that teachers are concerned by the recent explosion in the use of multilevel teaching. Science teachers say that combined classes are “prominent” and that they do not support the needs and aspirations of pupils. Finally, although I accept that we cannot solely use PISA as a guide, Scotland has now fallen to a record low of 29th in the international science rankings. Surely there has to be a link between those facts, which any future review into BGE should examine.
As Liz Smith said in her opening speech, often when we come to the chamber and highlight the areas that need to be worked on, the Scottish Government tells us that we are talking down Scotland’s schools. All the while, the same Scottish Government, in a quiet panic, is asking its officials what is going on.
Constructive criticism and debate must not be stifled. Now is the time for honesty and transparency from the Scottish Government about our education system’s weaknesses. Weaknesses cannot begin to be addressed until there is an open acceptance that they exist. It is time that the Scottish Government took off the blinkers and did just that, so that we can all work together. I do not doubt that we are all seeking the very best for Scotland’s children.
As we have heard, last year the Education and Skills Committee undertook a robust inquiry into subject choice. For context, the committee noted its support for the ethos and principles that underpin the curriculum for excellence and the work that is being undertaken to develop the senior phase.
One of the key drivers of the curriculum for excellence was the change to a localised approach that would best suit the needs of learners in a given area. It would make use of horizontal management, as opposed to a top-down, vertical structure. “Empowerment” is how the cabinet secretary described it earlier. As the OECD report noted in 2015:
“CfE needs to be less managed from the centre and become more a dynamic, highly equitable curriculum being built constantly in schools, networks and communities with a strengthened ‘middle’ in a vision of collective responsibility and multi-layer governance.”
The committee considered articulation between the broad general education and senior phase; as Liz Smith noted, I explored that issue with witnesses. Although I was reassured by the cabinet secretary mentioning today that articulation is being considered by the senior phase review, it is worth noting that challenges have always existed in that area. As Tony McDaid of South Lanarkshire Council advised the committee:
“The learning that took place in the history class in first year did not necessarily connect with the standard grade experience or, indeed, the higher experience, where different skills were involved.”—[
Education and Skills Committee
, 15 May 2019; c 10.]
As noted by the Government’s amendment, direct action has been taken to reduce teacher workload. The removal of outcome and assessment standards is an example of a key change. In my former national 5 modern studies class, I had responsibility for tracking 390 individual assessments, and that was just for one class in one year. That workload has now been removed, following the cabinet secretary’s instruction, which was warmly welcomed by our hard-working teaching population.
On the numbers of subjects that are routinely available for pupils to choose from at national 4 and 5 level, the committee heard of some variance nationally. However, much like articulation, that variance is not new, as it existed under standard grade. Fundamentally, however, as Professor Jim Scott advised the committee:
“on schools offering six, seven or eight qualifications, assuming that the child manages to carry forward five subjects, they will be able to get five highers.”—[
, Education and Skills Committee, 24 April 2019; c 7.]
That is where our focus as parliamentarians should be: on equality of opportunity to succeed.
Additionally, of course, we must be cognisant that subject choice is driven by the learners themselves. Pupil uptake has always been a driver of subject availability. In 2015 I had two pupils who wanted to study advanced higher modern studies, and I wanted to teach them the course. However, the course could not run with only two pupils present and, I would suggest to the Conservatives, nor should it have done. Considering that I was a faculty head on a good salary, it would not have been the best use of taxpayers’ money to pay me for five periods a week to teach two pupils. Instead, those pupils attended the course at another local school, which was able to justify its delivery of the course due to the uptake.
Curriculum for excellence has undoubtedly evolved since its inception. New pathways now exist for pupils.
I agree that facilitating pupils to study a subject by attending another school when there is a small uptake at their own school is not a new idea; that has happened for a long time and it can be extremely valuable. However, does Jenny Gilruth agree that a lot of the evidence that has been received has shown that that is not what would happen? Instead, t he two pupils who were studying at advanced higher level would be stuck at the back of a class of students who were studying at higher level—possibly even a class of pupils studying for both highers and nationals—and left to get on with it. That is not acceptable.
I do not think that that is reflective of all the evidence that we have heard. We have heard evidence that is contrary to that, and we have heard evidence from some people who are teaching now and for whom the advanced higher hub model works—for example, I know that it works at Glasgow Caledonian University, and I know that it works in Fife, including Dunfermline, so I do not accept that.
Pathways are open to pupils, but it is no longer only about school education: it is about partnerships. In 2017-18, Fife had an impressive 7 per cent of the national total of modern apprenticeship starts, with more than 27,000 taking up that qualification. Crucially, those pathways to achievement are about opening up equity in Scotland’s education system.
Fifth and sixth year were not for everyone when I was at school; they should have been, but the system, and certainly my state school, strongly encouraged certain individuals to leave at the end of S4. If those individuals chose to stay on, they were often prevented from studying for a higher qualification—the gold standard of Scottish education.
“I was a headteacher in Maryhill for a number of years, and the school for which I was responsible had fewer than 10 per cent of the youngsters in S5 and S6 achieving five highers. When timetabling, we set a timetable that started with five different columns, so that the youngsters who were doing five highers could progress clearly through a column structure and then onwards from that. When doing that timetabling exercise, I always asked, ‘What about the remaining 90 per cent of children?’”—[
Education and Skills Committee
; c 3.]
What about that 90 per cent? What about equity? What about acknowledging that not all children achieve five highers in one sitting? What about poverty?
Too often in education debates, we speak of school as an isolated institution that is immune from societal inequality, but Glenrothes high school, which is in my constituency, has benefited from an additional £116,400 in the 2019-20 period through pupil equity funding. That funding has allowed the school to invest in creating a nurture base, known as the glen, which provides support for pupils with social and emotional issues. The benefits of that investment have been increased attendance and greater resilience and confidence. Many of those pupils cannot cope in class for extended periods of time. Many of them come to school hungry—in a town where nearly one in three children grows up in poverty. The staff at that school are not in revolt about subject choice; rather, they are dealing with the grim reality of the impact on their cohort of 10 years of austerity.
I fear that the political debate around Scottish education has become overtly focused on academic badge collecting—as one headteacher described it to me—but what about those who take longer than one year to collect those badges? For far too long, many pupils were excluded from the Scottish education system. They were told that they were not clever enough to sit highers. They were told they were not clever enough to stay on at school. They were told that school was not for them.
Our school system and our education system should be about getting the best results for all pupils, and if they face disadvantage it should be the responsibility of the state to help them achieve. Give them a nurture room. Give them different pathways. Allow all of them to have the opportunity to succeed. That is what curriculum for excellence is about.
I thank Liz Smith for bringing this debate to the chamber. If education did not come under the powers of this Parliament and it was still reserved to Westminster, I am sure that we would see a tenfold increase in the number of debates on education, with SNP motions telling us how much better it would be if the power rested in the Scottish Government’ hands.
As it stands, the power is here and since the establishment of this Parliament in 1999 we have seen a decline in the standards of our education system that many developed nations simply would not tolerate. What other developed nation would withdraw itself from the international surveys on literacy, numeracy and science that allow countries to draw wider conclusions about their teaching practice and policies? I could not find one country, other than Scotland, that has withdrawn from those surveys.
Everyone knows that the wider the statistical survey, the more reliable the data and policy conclusions. What exactly leads our Government to think that Scotland is better off out of the surveys? Scottish Labour’s policy of re-entering them as a matter of priority is one of the first of many things that should be done to reverse decline.
The Labour amendment focuses on
“the systematic use of multi-level teaching”, which has already come up in the debate. The last time that we touched on the matter in the chamber—in Opposition party time, I should say—John Swinney told me that multilevel teaching is a good thing. Teachers and pupils do not agree.
Iain Gray said that multilevel teaching is a problem in Dundee. Let me set out for members a bit of what is going on. Some 42 per cent of English classes are multilevel—English, the most core subject that a pupil can take—and 67 per cent of physics classes, 69 per cent of biology classes, 58 per cent of chemistry classes, 65 per cent of geography classes and 64 per cent of history classes are multilevel.
The information comes from the analysis that
The Times published in October. It is worth quoting extensively from the piece in
. It said:
“Dundee, with high levels of poverty, is at the sharp end of the staff crisis with only one in four pupils getting five Highers. Dwindling teacher numbers have left high schools operating at ‘bare bones’, they have said ... In total teachers of 23 subjects, including biology, physics, modern languages and English, are forced to accommodate up to three lessons in one class, mostly for National 4, 5 and 6.
One teacher, who asked not to be named, said that pupils taking National 4, usually in S4 and at 14 to 15 years old, work alongside students preparing for their Highers, who may be up to 17. ‘Sometimes you’re effectively teaching two classes at the same time,’ he said. ‘It’s very challenging. They aren’t always covering the same topics. This can mean teaching one group of children while the others read or work quietly and independently, then switching over,’ he said. ‘Smaller schools with multi-level classes are at a disadvantage.’
Dundee, whose council is run by the SNP, has lost more than 200 teachers in the last decade, including 159 secondary school teachers. A large secondary school has closed despite a slight increase in pupil numbers.
The area has some of the lowest attainment rates in Scotland, with only one pupil in ten from a deprived background achieving five Highers. At one Dundee high school two thirds failed to pass a single Higher last year.”
I would like the cabinet secretary to reflect on whether he ever sat in a multilevel English class. I did not. Even at standard grade, classes were split clearly into credit, general and foundation levels, although pupils sat two papers. I contend that multilevel English classes are unprecedented. I do not think that today’s pupils should have to experience them.
Let me hark back to my school days again, because I want to touch on city campuses and advanced higher hubs, which are really just a dressed-up way of saying, “sitting on a bus all day”. In my day, advanced higher level was known as sixth year studies, and classes were always small. [
.] John Swinney is looking at me with a disgruntled expression; let me explain this to him. People always wanted to study at that level to deepen their knowledge before university. I remember studying sixth year history in a class of five; in biology I was the only candidate. Such were the options that the school made available, 25 years ago.
If I were to take those advanced highers in Dundee today, I would not be allowed to study them in my school. Dundee City Council prohibits schools across the city from offering advanced higher courses to classes of fewer than 10 pupils. Classes from across the city are pooled in one location. If members visit a secondary school in Dundee today, they will find that, in the middle of the school day, pupils make their way across the city, often on two buses, to attend classes in a different secondary school, and then make their way back again. A senior pupil who must take the bus to school in the morning and home again at night, as I used to do, is spending a huge amount of their day sitting on buses and travelling, rather than learning and studying.
What incentive is there to deepen one’s study if a pupil has to leave the warm school on a miserable and freezing January day and make their way half way across the city? [
The situation is frankly ridiculous and is simply a consequence of continual cuts from this Government, even though SNP members can dress it up with any phrase that they like. That is the practical consequence, and of course there is a knock-on effect on attainment. I invite any SNP member to address the situation, which undermines the whole comprehensive offering.
As a member of the Education and Skills Committee, I am grateful for the opportunity to speak positively about our schools’ hard-working teachers and pupils. I am pleased that the Conservative Party welcomes the review of the senior phase of the curriculum for excellence; it is nice to hear it welcoming something.
However, Liz Smith’s motion quickly descends from the positive to the negative, in predictable fashion.
We know that pupil attainment levels are generally rising, with more young people going on to positive destinations such as further education or apprenticeships, but still the Opposition focuses on the negative. Just for once, it would be good to hear them praise the achievements of our young people, instead of crying “education is in crisis”, “failing schools” and more hysterical outpourings that must be really hard for teachers, parents and pupils to take.
Not at the moment; I want to make progress.
The senior phase headteacher survey was commissioned by the Scottish Government last summer. The 159 respondents were broadly representative of secondary schools in Scotland in terms of size of school, urban or rural location and proportion of pupils from the most deprived areas. The majority—85 per cent—of the headteachers responded that they are achieving an
“integrated, progressive and coherent experience for young people in the senior phase”; and 77 per cent were confident that their school provides a sufficient variety of learning pathways to meet the needs of all their young people across the senior phase.
I have two questions. Does Rona Mackay accept that in order to make progress we must acknowledge where there are issues that need to be addressed and weaknesses that need to be strengthened? Secondly, she is quoting statistics, but does she not accept the Education and Skills Committee’s survey responses, in which 75 per cent of school pupils said that they did not have the choices that they desired at school? Is that not the fundamental point in this debate?
That was the case, but there was also discussion of the variation between local authorities on pupil choices. It was often the headteacher or school that instigated what choices were available.
Schools offer a wide range of courses and qualifications including college provision, the Duke of Edinburgh award, foundation apprenticeships and Saltire awards and the majority of headteachers have established long-term partnerships with colleges and employers in order to develop their senior phase curriculum.
The key element of all that is the flexibility that is being offered to senior pupils, such as individualised timetables to study the topics that interest them. We know that if young people are interested in a subject, they will do well. The majority of schools offer pupils six or seven courses in S4, five in S5 and in S6 and have long-term partnerships with colleges and employers.
In my constituency, which is in East Dunbartonshire, the latest Skills Development Scotland report shows that between 2016 and 2019 the gap between the 20 per cent most and least deprived areas, in terms of young people who are participating in education, training or work, has decreased from 9.3 to 5.4 per cent. Last Friday, for the fourth year in a row, I attended a celebration of the Chinese new year at St Ninian’s high school in my constituency. As ever, it was an amazing performance from the pupils, with feeder primaries taking part. We even heard a rendition of the song “Loch Lomond” in Mandarin and Scottish. As ever, I thought about how much learning has expanded since my school days.
I am aware that I am fortunate to have high-achieving schools in my constituency, but their results fluctuate too and that is not a crisis. Ross Greer talked about deprived schools in deprived areas, but I believe that that is down to some areas being hammered under the relentless Tory austerity agenda. It is entirely socio-economic. Universal credit, food banks and living daily hand to mouth are the things that reduce attainment and foster inequality.
No. It is because the Scottish Government has placed education at the top of its agenda that a review of the curriculum for excellence in the senior phase is taking place. We are not saying that everything is perfect, and we must constantly monitor and improve on areas where that is necessary and we can. That is what a responsible Government does.
A responsible Government does not, as Boris Johnson’s Government did, cut the Erasmus programme, which has helped millions of young people throughout the UK to broaden their education and life skills, and then reinstate it after an outcry.
Before the reinstatement of the programme, the UK Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson, asked civil servants to consider plans to replace the Erasmus programme provided it was in Britain’s “interest to do so.” What planet is he on to even suggest that? What utter nonsense. It is in all our young people’s interests to have the opportunity to take part in such a wonderful scheme and shame on the Tories for threatening it in the first place.
The Education and Skills Committee concluded that there was a lack of leadership from Scotland’s public education bodies, such as Education Scotland and the SQA, around the curriculum structure, which may in some cases have resulted in some narrowing of subject choice. As other members have said, during our evidence taking we encountered a lack of awareness from such bodies. Those organisations need to step up to the mark and embrace changes by integrating with schools and communities, in order to fulfil their remit.
While talking to people during the general election campaign, we heard frequently that they were fed up with education and health being used as political footballs. I am, too. Every system needs constant monitoring and improvement, and constructive criticism and debate are always welcome.
At the start of the debate, my colleague Liz Smith set out the number of times that we have debated education in the chamber in Government time in the past five years. We have also seen a great many debates in Opposition time, which often highlight what the Opposition sees as some of the weaknesses in the education system.
I say to Rona Mackay, who raised the point, that there are many good things in Scottish education. A lot of great work is being done in our schools and many pupils perform well. However, there are also weaknesses, and it is not unreasonable for the Opposition in Parliament to highlight them to the Government. In any political system, we would reasonably expect those who are in power at any given time to highlight what is generally going well and to dismiss the concerns of the Opposition, and those who are in Opposition will generally highlight the weaknesses. If, as I sense is the case, members on the Government benches are frustrated that the Opposition is using such debates to highlight weaknesses in the education system, the answer is in the Government’s hands. After all, it controls the large majority of parliamentary time, and there is nothing to prevent the Government from scheduling more education debates to highlight what it sees as the positives.
In approaching such debates, we should also dump the nonsense claim that we hear too often, that any criticism of what is happening in education is a criticism of hard-working staff or pupils. It is not, and I can say that with some authority, because I am married to a teacher. Those members who know Mrs Fraser will know how brave an individual in my position would have to be to seek to blame teachers for the current ills of the education system. The teaching profession is as frustrated as many others are about some of the things that are happening in our schools, particularly issues with the curriculum, subject choice and shortages of teachers.
The focus of this afternoon’s debate is the curriculum for excellence; a curriculum that was introduced with the best of intentions. In a world in which future careers depend upon flexibility, adaptability and the ability to problem solve, the curriculum for excellence was intended to develop the skills of individual pupils. It therefore represented a shift away from traditional Scottish education, which focused more on knowledge than skills. It was no longer so important for young people to know things; it was more important for them to be able to work things out. That was a laudable objective, but there is increasing concern that the shift from knowledge to skills has gone too far, and that it has left too many pupils without a basic grounding in the knowledge that they will need for their future lives and careers. That concern is recognised even among those who were fundamental in the development of curriculum for excellence.
That is a reasonable question. The point that I was trying to make is that it is all about the balance between the two. It is not about either/or, it is about finding the right balance.
Keir Bloomer, one of the architects of curriculum for excellence, said in April last year,
“One of the purposes of CFE was to broaden pupils’ education, but instead the way in which it is being implemented is narrowing it significantly.”
Keir Bloomer has also criticised the complexity of the curriculum and the mountain of guidance that has accumulated, which I know the cabinet secretary has endeavoured to address.
Another educationist, Professor Lindsay Paterson of the University of Edinburgh, put it clearly last April when he wrote:
“Scottish educational policy—though not the Scottish tradition—is behind the times on this. Advanced thinking about the curriculum in many countries accepts that knowledge comes first. Breadth of knowledge stimulates the skill people will need to cope with an unpredictable world. Narrowing the curriculum is a tragedy because it closes the minds of young Scots. That’s not the way to build an outward-looking nation.”
It is education experts such as those to whom we need to listen.
They have also raised concerns about the restriction of subject choice, which has already been debated this afternoon. Most worrying of all, the restriction of subject choice impacts most on pupils from the most deprived backgrounds, while those from better-off backgrounds do not face the same limitations, as Ross Greer pointed out.
According to research that was conducted last year by Reform Scotland, the schools that cut the number of exams on offer are typically those that serve our more deprived communities, which further limits the life opportunities of children who might already be disadvantaged. If the Scottish Government is serious about closing the attainment gap, it needs to address that matter.
This Parliament’s Education and Skills Committee, in its report in September, unanimously expressed concern about the disconnect between education and the SQA with regard to responsibility for the structure and design of the new qualifications in Scotland, which has unintended consequences for the implementation of the curriculum for excellence in the senior phase. When a committee of this Parliament concludes that unanimously, on a cross-party basis, the Government needs to pay attention.
What needs to happen now? As Liz Smith set out at the start of the debate, a review of the senior phase is welcome, but does not go far enough. There needs to be a wider look at broad general education and its articulation with the senior phase, because if we cannot get the first three years of secondary education right, we are not laying the right foundations for S4 to S6.
The Scottish Government has to recognise that there are issues to be addressed. In the papers today, I was concerned to see comments from the SNP MP Carol Monaghan in which she described the PISA report as “crude and corrupt”. That level of denial on the part of a member of the party of government in Scotland does the Scottish Government no service whatever. I hope that the cabinet secretary will distance himself from those remarks.
It is not good enough to say that Scottish education is doing better. It is doing better in some areas, but it needs to be better than it is now, and the starting point is understanding what needs to be improved.
I have pleasure in supporting the motion in Liz Smith’s name.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in the debate. As members will know, I have not sat on the Education and Skills Committee, but I have been interested to read the committee’s report, “Subject choices in schools”.
In its report, the committee states that the crux of its inquiry was on
“the number of subject choices available to pupils” at S4. I think that we all accept that that is one angle on the curriculum for excellence. However, it is only one angle, and I wonder whether there is a risk in focusing too much on that, which is an input, rather than on outputs and outcomes. At times, it seems that the Conservatives want to return to the so-called golden days, with a more traditional curriculum structure and young people sitting seven or eight exams in S4. I accept that fewer qualifications are being achieved now, but it seems that the more important question is about outcomes for young people. Are young people coming out of the senior phase with more or fewer opportunities?
The Association of Directors of Education in Scotland produced a report in November entitled, “Excellence & Equity: Raising Attainment, Improving Life-chances in Scotland's Schools”. Among other points, it states that
“attainment continues to be linked to deprivation”, but that the
“attainment of school leavers ... in the 20% most deprived postcodes is improving at a faster rate than that of those living in the 20% least deprived postcodes.”
The report also looks at positive destinations for school leavers, which are HE, FE, employment, training or an activity agreement. From 2009-10 to 2017-18, there was an overall improvement from 87 to 94.4 per cent in achieving positive destinations. Whereas in 2009-10 there was a 14.7 per cent gap between the 20 per cent most and least deprived areas in terms of those entering positive destinations, that gap had reduced to only 6.8 per cent by 2017-18. So it seems to me that we have some very positive figures for outcomes from the senior phase.
Education Scotland is quoted in the committee’s report as saying:
“the right time to view the overall achievements of young people is at their point of exit from the senior phase, rather than in any individual year.”
The SQA is quoted as having made the point that, whereas
“Some children benefited a lot from the old system”, not all did, and
“there is a now a wider range of options.”
I think back to my experience at school. We had to choose between history and geography—we could not do both—there was no modern studies, biology, finance or accountancy, and we got a modern language only because my father went to the school and argued for it. I am not sure that choices were better in the past. There are now more and different options with colleges; I do not think that there used to be as many.
There is another point that I will try to come on to later, if I have time. What young people want is all very well, and we should absolutely respect that but, at the same time, we want more people in STEM subjects, and we want more women in traditional male employment. Therefore, there has to be guidance for young people as well as listening to what they want.
The Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills made the point to the committee that there is
“an inevitability of subject choice in any education system” and that neither he nor any council or school
“can guarantee unfettered choice for every pupil in the country.”—[
Official Report, Education and Skills Committee,
29 May 2019; c 14.]
Again, the Conservatives have to be a bit more realistic. The Conservative Party wants lower taxes. If that happened, there would be less money for schools, fewer teachers, larger class sizes, and a further reduction in subject choice.
Is Mr Mason aware of the fact that, in England, spending per head on education is substantially lower than it is in Scotland? We benefit from the Barnett formula and the union dividend, of course. Does Mr Mason recognise that it cannot entirely be about resources, because educational outcomes in England are in many cases ahead of those in Scotland, despite lower spending?
That depends on how the outcomes are measured. I go into schools fairly frequently, and I see young people who are a lot more confident and able in a whole range of skills that I did not have when I was at school. They can stand up and do public speaking, which I would not have done at their age. We have to be very careful about how we measure outcomes and not just focus on the things that we can measure. I accept that that is a problem with my accountancy profession at times.
On how much freedom individual schools should have, the report says:
“The Committee recognises that there is an inherent tension between providing schools with the freedom to set their own structure and expecting our young people to have a consistent experience and opportunities.”
I asked Glasgow City Council about that, and it said that it does not prescribe to schools what they should do in S4 to S6. Schools are asked to design a curriculum that is broad and balanced and enables them to achieve positive outcomes. Almost all young people now stay on in school beyond S4, and there is a variety of models, particularly in partnership with colleges. I accept that that may be easier in a city context.
I will have to miss out a few things that I was going to say, but I will give one example of the balance between academic and vocational. We sometimes say that some schools have too much emphasis on the vocational and that others have too much emphasis on the academic. One of my younger relations was pushed by his parents to go to university, but he felt that it was not for him, and he resisted. He is now working in the renewables sector with wind turbines, and he seems to be doing extremely well.
Presiding Officer, I will begin by being the classroom sook and wishing you a very happy birthday. Maybe I will get some extra time for that.
This has been an important and reflective debate. Although it was prompted by the Education and Skills Committee’s report on subject choices, a much more fundamental question has been broached, particularly by Liz Smith at the beginning of the debate, about the context in which we want to discuss education in Scotland and the tenor of that discussion.
To certain members on the Government back benches I say gently that it is simply not credible to bemoan the Opposition’s approach but not then to reflect on the weaknesses in Scottish education that currently need to be addressed. Even if we had the best-functioning education system in the world we would still have such issues.
More importantly, it should come as no surprise that we want to discuss education, for two important reasons. First, it is of fundamental importance to Scotland—for our own children and for the future of our country. Also, the curriculum for excellence has been a bold and radical change. When we embark on such a change we always need to reflect on and review how it has gone, which requires frankness and the identification of any issues.
Liz Smith is right: we should celebrate the fact that more pupils are staying on until the end of their sixth year.
I will in a moment.
We should celebrate the fact that more pupils are achieving more than one higher. However, we should also acknowledge that higher pass rates are declining and the number of highers being achieved in S4 is falling. Only by acknowledging those facts can we make progress in our schools and our education system.
I will take Mr Swinney’s intervention now.
I am grateful to Mr Johnson for giving way and for the spirit in which he is expressing his views. Does he accept that the Government’s decision in 2015 to commission the OECD to review CFE and the broad general education was an indication of our honestly facing up to the issues that the OECD found and of our implementing the challenging actions that it recommended that we take to remedy them?
The review was positive, but it took the report from the Education and Skills Committee for it to be commissioned. Since the commissioning of the review, we have also seen a Government attempt to stonewall the very statistics that I mentioned earlier, on higher pass rates and the number of highers being achieved. I acknowledge the positive tenor of the cabinet secretary’s opening remarks. However, we need to go further. We need to see much more frankness in the Government’s approach.
On the issue that is at the heart of the debate—the breadth of the curriculum—there are a number of other areas in which we need to hear such candour. Those have been laid bare in the report and I think were examined in some depth earlier in the debate, but I will now bring my own reflection on them. In essence, we have seen something of a collision between the aims and ambitions of the curriculum for excellence—on providing the maximum number of choices—on the one hand, and the practicalities of delivering such a range of choices. That starts with the design of the qualifications themselves and the concept of 160 notional hours of learning for each subject. Although it was intended to have two-year teaching blocks, the reality is that most schools deal with one year at a time, in the expectation that pupils will sit a tranche of exams, year by year, through the senior phase.
There has also been a lack of clarity on how the senior phase should be implemented. Although Mr Swinney has, rightly, questioned whether we should be prescriptive or leave such decisions up to local schools, the reality is that, for most schools, it is not up to them; it is mandatory that they deliver only six subjects for each S4 pupil. Sometimes such mandatory requirements are not even consistent within the same local authority area. I have personal experience of some schools in a local authority area being mandated to teach six subjects, whereas others have been allowed to continue with eight subjects for pupils in S4.
Ultimately, the issue of breadth is about the division between theory and practice. In some senses, Mr Swinney is correct. More potential pathways are open to young people in our schools today than there were in the past. That might be true at a system level, but the key question is whether all those pathways are open to every pupil in every school. The reality is clear from the conclusion of the Education and Skills Committee’s report, which says:
“it is evident that there has been a reduction in the number of subjects available to pupils in S4”.
That reality is that the list of subjects available to pupils, which is put in front of them when they make their choices in S3, is shorter than it used to be.
Whether the Government’s approach is correct even in theory might also be questioned. Although more choices might be available in S4, is the same number available in S5 or S6? Breadth is about more than simply how many options a young person might have in S4. To me, it is about how many they have when they leave school. The key question for the OECD should be whether that has improved or got worse.
I have very little time remaining, but I would like to mention the other key issue that the report found, which was in multilevel teaching. On that, I echo the reflections of my colleague Iain Gray.
It is simply untenable to try and teach three subject levels within a certain class, especially within a particular area.
There are key structural issues, both in relation to the senior phase itself, and to the broader system that the Government has put in place around our education system, as well as questions around institutions such as Education Scotland. We need the real change of a different, more reflective and more open approach from this Government if we are going to make progress in Scottish education.
I welcome the review of the senior phase, which seems an appropriate response to the Education and Skills Committee’s report. Clare Adamson said earlier that it was a unanimous and considered report. I urge Opposition parties to pay heed to the convener of the committee’s comments that the committee inquiry did not conclude that young people were being damaged. That is what the review was set up to investigate and I believe that we need to give it time and space to do its job.
As well as the convener of the Education and Skills Committee, other respected voices welcome the senior phase review, including the Royal Society of Edinburgh, which I thank for its briefing for the debate. Its document states that the
“RSE supports the Scottish Government’s commitment to commission an independent review of the senior phase of curriculum for excellence” and that the
“senior phase review should seek to develop a forward-looking, shared vision for Scottish education and provide a practical focus for how it is to be achieved. In that way, it should take account of the existing evidence base, including the Scottish Parliament’s Education and Skills Committee inquiry into subject choice and the OECD report on “Improving Schools in Scotland”. However, in doing so, it must be focused on the future.”
The RSE seeks assurances on the review’s independence, particularly as it already includes—as it should—organisations such as Education Scotland and the local authorities that are deeply embedded in the delivery of CFE.
The RSE also suggests that consideration should be given to the relationship between the senior phase review and the University of Stirling’s two-year Nuffield-funded research into the impact of different secondary school phase pathways on educational outcomes. The society agrees with the Government that the review should not be focused on national qualifications but should be geared towards generating a shared agenda for the senior phase.
I support the RSE’s advice to focus on the future. We should not be afraid to adapt and change but, at the same time, we must not throw away what we have been doing well. In Scottish education, as members across the chamber have acknowledged, we are already doing many things very well.
One of those areas is that of vocational provision, which is growing for young people in the senior phase. The number of school leavers who attain vocational qualifications of level 5 and above has increased from 7.3 per cent in 2013-14 to 14.8 per cent in 2017-18. More than 54,000 skills-based qualifications, awards and certificates have been achieved in 2019—more than double the figure attained in 2012.
That is a remarkable change and something that the people whom I speak to as an MSP—pupils, teachers and parents alike—tell me that they want for their children. They want alternative pathways that are not necessarily traditional academic ones. The growth of foundation apprenticeships and the collaboration between schools, colleges and employers in developing the young workforce is a great testament to the progress that we have made in delivering a modern outcomes-focused educational offering.
The reality is that our young people are achieving a breadth of awards, giving them the best chance of success in further learning, life and work. A survey in June last year asked secondary headteachers for their perspectives on implementing the senior phase curriculum. Of those who responded, 97 per cent accommodated requests for more or fewer course choices, by offering flexibility. The majority of schools offer pupils six or seven courses in S4 and S5, and five in S6, and have long-term partnerships with colleges and employers.
More than half of headteachers said that they start planning for the senior phase when young people are in S2, and 90 per cent of them believe that they are able to ensure continuity of learning. Almost nine out of 10 headteachers said that they had the autonomy to determine the senior phase in their school.
The action that the SNP Scottish Government is taking on vocational education and in offering teachers and headteachers more flexibility is resulting in progress. Another area in which progress is being made is teacher recruitment. In 2019, teacher numbers increased for the third year in a row, rising to 52,247. Scotland has more teachers per pupil than elsewhere in Britain. According to the latest school census figures, in Scotland there are 7,485 teachers for every 100,000 pupils, whereas in England there are 5,545 teachers for every 100,000 pupils, and in Wales there are 5,038 teachers for every 100,000 pupils. Therefore, Scotland is delivering way ahead of the rest of the UK nations.
Many good things are happening in Scottish education. It is true that concerns have been raised, including about the curriculum for excellence and how it is being implemented in the senior phase, but that is not for this debate—that is for the independent review. We should wait and see what those experts conclude, and I very much look forward to hearing about that.
It has been heartening to listen to what has been, across the chamber, an interesting discussion and, in the majority of cases—this has not been true of all speeches—a genuine debate about education in Scotland. We often forget that at the heart of that debate are three distinct and very important groups of people, whose voices need to be heard: teachers, pupils and parents.
I will start with teachers. About 18 months ago, the First Minister told teachers that her door was always open to them and encouraged teachers across Scotland to write to her about their concerns and experiences in Scottish education. Freedom of information requests revealed that the First Minister received more than 100 submissions from teachers, in which they described a wide range of issues from the incredibly long hours that they work to the abuse that they face in our classrooms.
I am not a parent, but I have had the benefit of dealing with numerous local cases of stressed teachers who are off work and whistleblowers who have told me what is really going on in their place of work. They have told me that they are too afraid to complain or that they feel that no one listens to them when they do.
I am confident that members across the chamber will join me in saying that nobody deserves to face physical or verbal abuse in their place of work, but it is true that the number of assaults on teachers rose by 10 per cent last year. That statistic should worry us all. I mention that because that is where the first group—teachers—interacts with the other two.
The theory that we talk about in education debates in this chamber quickly meets the reality that is faced in schools. We could not have a debate such as today’s while failing to acknowledge that many classrooms are simply too full, that many teachers are teaching multiple levels in the same class, that many schools are oversubscribed and have teacher shortages, and that many young people simply cannot choose the subjects that they want to study. I am not talking anything down; I am providing a simple reality check.
That takes me to the second group—pupils. Regardless of who said what over recess about the SQA results, the arguments on which have been rehearsed, it is clear that, behind closed doors or elsewhere, ministers concede that things are not entirely well, because they have instructed civil servants to investigate. It is a fact that pass rates at higher and advanced higher have fallen to their lowest levels since the curriculum for excellence was introduced five years ago. It is also a fact that those figures were hailed as a strong set of results. It is a fact that reduced subject choice reduces the destinations and options that are open to young people. Whatever one’s ideological views on the curriculum for excellence and its complexities or otherwise, alarm bells must surely be ringing.
Any investigation that is announced today is welcome, but I say from the outset that, when they are available, the full results and findings of the report should be published in their entirety. Liz Smith was right to say that we want to know why the rates are falling. What is the root cause? How do we get underneath what is happening? More important, what will the Government do about it?
My problem is that I am nervous that not only will ministers fail to fully acknowledge the findings but, if failures are identified, they will fail to accept responsibility for them. There is already a precedent in Parliament for questioning those who question the Government, as we have heard from some of the ridiculous statements that SNP members have made today.
However, behind the bluff and bluster, I believe that the Deputy First Minister cares deeply about the outcomes for Scottish young people. I believe that he understands that we are experiencing problems with CFE, and I think that he worries that, unless action is taken, there is the real risk that the defining legacy of this Administration will be a decline in Scottish education. If he is not worried about such a legacy, he should be.
The third group that I want to talk about is parents. Much has been said about multilevel teaching, which jumps out at me as an issue that worries parents. It is difficult enough for teachers to teach students in one year who have varying levels of ability—never mind teaching two, three or even four levels. How can that be acceptable to parents? We heard the example of Dundee, where multilevel classes accounted for 60 per cent of secondary teaching. In North Lanarkshire, all schools use some form of multilevel teaching. Schools are making extensive use of the practice in Argyll and Bute, East Renfrewshire, Aberdeen and Inverclyde, in my region, but it is a postcode lottery. How is that acceptable? The fact that numerous independent and respected bodies have critiqued the policy says a lot. Why is that? It simply cannot be argued that multilevel teaching is improving outcomes. That cannot be acceptable to parents, teachers or pupils.
The whole point of the senior phase of curriculum for excellence is surely to equip our young people with the skills, knowledge and experiences that they need in order to offer them the widest possible range of opportunities—be it academic, further or higher, or non-academic—after they leave school. It is as simple as that.
I will end as I started, by asking the Government to listen to those to whom this matters—pupils, teachers and parents. If the Deputy First Minister will not listen to us, he should, please, listen to them.
In 2007, when I was first elected as a regional MSP for Glasgow, there was a significant focus by the Government and the Parliament on curriculum for excellence and the emerging new national qualifications framework. Indeed, in the months and years that followed, a number of Labour MSPs, some of whom had served in the previous Scottish Executive, urged the SNP in Government to get on with those reforms. They were right, because that was the right thing to do. Those MSPs said privately—and, sometimes, publicly—that there had already been far too much delay. I namecheck Cathy Jamieson, as Iain Gray did earlier.
The underlying principles of curriculum for excellence are strong, and there are many good examples of exemplary practice. Very briefly, I will namecheck schools in my constituency that offer a variety of choices. Of course, there are always constraints, but John Paul academy, Springburn academy, St Roch’s secondary school and Cleveden secondary school all do exceptional jobs.
It is, of course, right to review the implementation of curriculum for excellence, particularly in the senior phase of S4 to S6. I thank the Education and Skills Committee for its work on the matter, and I commend the Scottish Government for announcing the review of the senior phase. Even if there had not been a compelling committee report, that would still have been the right thing to do; it is time to see how things are getting on out there.
I have listened carefully to today’s debate. There seems to be a tension in relation to prescribing subject provision in the senior phase at local authority or Government level, but flexibility can be shown by schools and headteachers. We have to be very honest about the tension between local flexibility and there being a postcode lottery. They can be the same thing, depending on how we look at them.
On that note, the headteacher survey found that 97 per cent of headteachers had accommodated requests for more or fewer subjects or course choices. I also note from that survey that more than half of headteachers start planning for the senior school stage as early as S2. Of course they should do that. I will make some observations about those statistics.
First, I would be keen to compare a headteacher survey on the senior phase subject choices—as valuable as it is—with a survey of department heads. Timetabling and provision in S1 to S3 can drive student footfall for choices that are made for the senior phase. We have to understand that connectivity better. Department heads will have meaningful insight into that.
Many years ago, when I taught modern studies, it was difficult to get kids to take modern studies in S3 because teachers would have seen them only for six classes over two years—they would have had only 12 classes of modern studies, but two entire years of geography. The decisions that we make on timetabling in S1 to S3 often dictate and drive subject provision in the senior school. We have to understand that connectivity better.
It is not actually that good that “more than half” of headteachers are planning for the senior school stage from S2: far more of them should be planning for senior phase provision from S2 onwards. They should understand that connectivity better. We have to do better.
However, potential senior phase changes come with a health warning. In terms of having the right numbers of teachers, the right skill sets and the right subject choices, there is a long lead-in time for changing senior phase subject provision. Teachers want change, but they want it to be considered and planned. They want incremental change, rather than a big-bang approach. Let us look carefully at what the senior phase review shows.
There are outstanding educational outcomes in Scottish schools. As members would expect, SNP back benchers have been given a list of statistics on good educational outcomes. I will not rehearse them: they exist and we have all acknowledged that today.
However, no matter who is in power, we can always do better. That is self-evident. I want to make some requests of the senior phase review that the Government is carrying out. That is where the debate should be. Some of the asks relate to multilevel teaching. I have taught standard grade. It was bog standard, quite frankly, because of low school rolls in some of the secondary schools that I taught in over the years. I taught foundation, general and credit levels all in one class, and they all had an important exit exam.
I was going to make that point. The key thing is that the syllabus and the content mirrored each other. Foundation, general and credit levels were using the same content, at that time. The situation was similar with access 3, intermediate 1 and intermediate 2. Multilevel teaching is not, in itself, a bad thing, but we have to look at the national qualifications framework and the syllabus of various subjects and make sure that they articulate and mirror that multilevel teaching in order to support it. I am not against multilevel teaching, but we have to get the content right in order to support teachers in challenging circumstances.
I also ask the Government to look again at national 5 provision. Some kids will want to do national 5 in S4 rather than a two-year higher. It might be borderline whether they will secure the higher; if there is not a mirroring or articulation of the syllabus and they do not get the higher after two years, they might not get their national 5. We have to look at that, as well.
Finally, there have always been limitations on the range of highers that young people can do, but we have to understand better that, if young people are seeking to go into higher education, the types of highers that they do at the first sitting might dictate whether they get into their university courses of choice. This is not an appeal for every kid to be able to do everything all the time. They cannot, and any party that pretends that they can is wrong. However, let us maximise those opportunities. The Government review is the way to do that. A lot of good work is being done in schools, and there is a lot of consensus in Parliament.
On Education, the First Minister once said, that she would
“put her neck on the line” and asked “to be judged on” it. Five years on, the First Minister and her party are doing all that they can to backtrack on that commitment. Education appears to be low on the SNP priorities list, which means that children, parents and teachers continue to be let down.
Member after member has today expressed concerns and frustrations about the problems in our education system. Liz Smith opened the debate by covering in detail the many concerns, and highlighted the lack of responses from the Government to many questions that have been asked, both in committee and in the chamber.
Ian Gray spoke at length about the narrowing of the curriculum and the problems that that causes. Ross Greer rightly spoke about lack of leadership. Opposition member after Opposition member has raised our very justifiable concerns. That is in stark contrast to the Government party’s members, who have minimised or dismissed the problems.
I thank the Conservatives for once again using their debate time to allow us to debate education, which the Government has not done for a number of years.
A report card on the SNP’s handling of our education system would show Fs on every measure: attainment, class sizes, investment, teacher numbers and subject choices. It is very clear that the crisis in Scottish schools and the problems in colleges and universities are of the Scottish Government’s own making. That is why it is disgraceful that the only way to bring the Government to the chamber to answer on its record is for Opposition parties to drag it here using their allocated debating time.
The Scottish Government’s spin machine will try to hoodwink members and the public that education is in great shape in its hands. Pupils, parents and teachers know otherwise. The Education and Skills Committee inquiry into subject choices in school, which is highlighted in the motion, confirms that education in SNP hands is letting our children and young people down.
The committee rightly expressed concern about the extensive increase in the use of multilevel teaching. We agree, and believe that it is systemic, which is why we lodged our amendment. Multilevel teaching leaves pupils at a disadvantage, and should not be driven by the lack of resources in our schools. A review of education should include use of multilevel teaching, and address why it is happening and how widespread it is.
In evidence to the committee, Gerry Lyons from the Association of Directors of Education advised us that they
“try to create courses that articulate well, so that, when necessary, bi-level teaching can take place without any disadvantage to the young people.”—[
Official Report, Education and Skills Committee
, 15 May 2019; c 28.]
Does Mary Fee not trust Scotland’s teachers to differentiate their lessons as they always have done?
The issue is not the teachers. We can talk about the theory of how the senior phase should work, but practice in schools is completely different, and the Government must acknowledge that.
As the committee noted, there is a lack of data on use of multilevel teaching. In order to assess why fully, it is right to ask questions of Education Scotland on its handling and knowledge of multilevel teaching.
S4 onwards—the senior phase—is a crucial part of a child’s education. Those formative years shape a young adult’s future. It is a positive thing that the number of pupils who leave after their fourth year is decreasing. However, my concern is that schools are unable to offer a wider range of subjects in S5 and S6, which leads us to question use of multilevel teaching and implementation of curriculum for excellence.
Care-experienced young people are more likely to leave school at the end of S4, so more can and must be done to ensure that they have the opportunity to thrive in S5 and S6 and then move into further or higher education, if they choose that path. However, I concede that that ambition cannot be down to schools alone. It requires a multi-agency approach, so I will support the Scottish Government and local authorities in their efforts to support care-experienced young people to achieve better opportunities.
Attainment levels remain a growing concern for Scottish Labour. The figures that were released at the end of 2019 revealed that the attainment gap in literacy and numeracy has increased throughout the stages of primary school, despite there having been a slight narrowing of the overall attainment gap.
In secondary schools, the attainment rates for highers has fallen for four years in a row. That is an unwanted trend, regardless of the spin through which John Swinney attempts to cover up the facts.
Of course, statistics tell us that more pupils are leaving school to go on to positive destinations. However, when those positive destinations include zero-hours contract employment, the statistics should be treated with caution.
On subject choices, pupils are missing out on opportunities to expand their education. As the Education and Skills Committee found, the majority of parents—73 percent—stated that their child was unable to take all the subjects that they wanted to take. Children in private schools are being offered more subjects, which is resulting in systemic inequality for young people.
Finally, I repeat my appreciation of the Tories having brought the motion to the chamber for debate. I hope that the Scottish Government will listen carefully, and not just to Opposition parties, but to pupils, parents and teachers, and that it will conduct a full review of Scottish education that will open up, for pupils in the future, opportunities that pupils now are missing out on.
I do not, in any way, want to do more than I have already done to damage the political career of Daniel Johnson, but I think that his speech was reflective of the good tenor of the debate. I hope that members feel that I, for my part, have engaged in that spirit.
I very much welcome Jamie Greene’s contribution, because I take deadly seriously issues of performance in the Scottish education system.
I will give way to the member in a moment, because I did not do so earlier.
Daniel Johnson made the point that, when we undertake bold and radical change in the education system, we have to be prepared for independent validation. We have exposed ourselves to that once already with the review of the broad general education, which reported in 2015, and we are doing it again with the senior phase review. I hope that that satisfies the Parliament about the Government’s willingness to address the issues. I have concentrated on implementing many of the recommendations of the 2015 review by reducing bureaucracy, slimming down guidance and clarifying the standards that are expected at different stages in the education system so that teachers are clear about what is expected of them. That is part of my recognition of the challenges in Scottish education. I am perfectly open to stating those challenges clearly and acknowledging the need to take action to address them.
Will Mr Swinney make it absolutely clear that he will play no part in dismissing MSPs bringing forward very serious concerns about Scottish education as talking Scotland down? Education is the most serious issue affecting young people in our country, and we cannot have that. It is the role of the Opposition to hold the Government to account.
What is the Government doing about class sizes for pupils who are starting their education? We are seeing 26 per cent of young people in P1 to P3 in classes of over 26 students. Only yesterday, I met a teacher with a class of more than 31 pupils.
We have reduced the number of P1 classes that are in excess of 26 pupils so that there are now only 10 such classes in the whole of Scottish education. I do not have the figure that we reduced it from, but we have reduced that number significantly.
On Mr Findlay’s substantive point, I am all for an open debate about performance—actually, I am going to come on to the debate about performance
. Yes, there are challenges in Scottish education—I am not ducking that at all—but there is also good performance.
That is where I part company with Jenny Marra. She said that we have presided over a 10-year decline in performance in Scottish education. I will go through what has happened. The percentage of students achieving a level 5 qualification such as a national 5 has increased from 71 per cent when we came to office to almost 86 per cent now. The number of students gaining a level 6 qualification such as a higher has increased from less than half when we came to office to almost two thirds.
Mr Johnson will forgive me.
For the first time ever, more than 30 per cent of pupils are achieving at least five higher passes, which is up from just 20 per cent in 2009, and the number of young people who are achieving skills-based qualifications has increased from 47,747 to over 64,000 in 2019. That is the progress that has been delivered. Yes, let us face up to the challenges, but let us also have an honest debate about performance.
John Mason said that he sees coming out of our schools young people who are much more confident and more engaged in our society. Clare Adamson spoke about our visit last week to Braidhurst high school, where we saw the contribution of young people who were able to fulfil their potential because of the flexibility that is offered through curriculum for excellence. It has enabled young people to pursue their dreams of becoming professional footballers while securing the education that is necessary to enable them to prosper in life if their football career does not progress for as long as they would like.
Curriculum for excellence has many attributes that meet the needs of learners. Listening to the voices and views of learners—as I did this morning at Musselburgh grammar school, where I listened carefully to the pupils’ points of view—is what should shape our thinking as we address those needs. The Conservative amendment speaks about
“a review of broad general education”.
We will see what Parliament votes for tonight, but I have placed on record some of the dangers in that, which are why a review of the broad general education, at this stage in implementing the previous review of it, is not necessarily a priority.
In highlighting some points of dispute in the debate, I will cover four issues. The first is the question of whether we should make a judgment about what young people achieve at the point of exit or whether we should focus on the content of what they do in S4. That is a point of genuine dispute.
The second issue is the debate between prescription and flexibility. Bob Doris was absolutely correct in saying that one person’s flexibility is another person’s postcode lottery. We should be alive to that. I am on the side of flexibility. I got the sense that Mr Greer is not necessarily on the side of more prescription in principle but recognises that there is a debate to be had.
I am afraid that Mr Johnson will have to forgive me.
The third issue is the debate about knowledge versus skills, although I point out that we said in the refreshed curriculum narrative, which was published last year,
“Scotland’s curriculum ... helps our children and young people gain the knowledge, skills and attributes needed for life in the 21st century.”
I stand by that statement. They need the knowledge, skills and attributes. The question is whether those are all in the right balance, which is the issue that I was trying to address.
Lastly, there is the question of whether there is sufficient breadth in the curriculum. I believe that a broad general education for young people up to the end of S3 is a longer, broader general education than I got when I was at school. We have to make sure—which is what the benchmarks are designed to do—that young people are getting that broad general education, which then articulates into the senior phase.
Those are some of the issues. I do not think that we need a review of the broad general education to consider them further, but I am very happy to discuss them with members of Parliament and the Education and Sport Committee as we take forward the review of the senior phase and make sure that Scotland’s curriculum delivers what we have said it should deliver for every young person in Scotland. We should help our young people to gain the knowledge, skills and attributes that are needed for life in the 21st century. That is our promise and that is what we must deliver.
It may be a new year and we may be another year older, but we have certainly not seen anything new from the Deputy First Minister. It has been another example of wheeling out the rhetoric and not explaining the lack of delivery. It is the same old trio of delay, dither and denial. We have only to look at the Government’s amendment to see that.
Listening to today’s debate, it is almost impossible to remember—although I do remember—when teachers were excited that John Swinney was taking over the education portfolio; that this SNP Government’s most competent and able performer had been put in charge of their national priority; that the days of pretending that everything was well with educational reforms were over; that there would be bold and decisive action; and that no barriers would be put in the way of delivering the world-leading education of which Scotland has such a proud history.
However, as we enter 2020, the reality is that those same teachers now see the cabinet secretary as being part of the problem instead of the solution.
Over the past year, in particular, he has come to personify the SNP Government’s central approach to education policy. That is to come into the chamber and proclaim confidently that everything is fine, that we are on track and that we have all the information that we need, and then just to hope that no one notices that that is not correct. Indeed, it has become hard to know whether John Swinney has even started to believe his own spin.
Let us take, for example, the claim that the recent drop in the number of higher passes was just annual variation. For absolute clarity, the pass rate in 2015 was 79.2 per cent. In 2016 it was 77.2 per cent; in 2017 it was 77 per cent; in 2018 it was 76.8 per cent; and in 2019 it was just 74.8 per cent. Of course, those figures do show a variation year on year: what screams out to anyone who wants to see the facts is that there is a clear downward trend.
Under the old system, in some years the pass rate was up and in some years it was down. What it did not do was drop consistently year after year. It is a pretty sorry state of affairs when the man who used to run this country’s finances can come here and pretend that that is not a problem—that he can come here and say that there is not a trend. There clearly is, and it is pretty depressing that the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills cannot identify a depressing line on a graph for what it is.
Like me, Mr Swinney was lucky enough to go to school when there was not a shortage of maths teachers in Scotland. Surely, rather than hear him peddle linguistic gymnastics, the least that our hard-working teachers, as well as pupils and their parents, deserve is the truth.
Instead, as on every issue that has been raised in the chamber today or recently by Opposition members—from subject choice to teacher numbers, from multilevel teaching to additional support needs, and from music tuition to support for small rural schools—all we get is dither, delay and denial, as well as the blame for asking serious questions.
Then, when the cabinet secretary is dragged, kicking and screaming, into this chamber, or when he is embarrassed by another unanimous damning Education and Skills Committee report, he tries a different approach of offering a series of excuses, lengthy explanations and the promise of debates some time in the future. He hopes that, by kicking the can a little further down the road, he will not have to take responsibility for the fact that his Government has been in charge throughout this whole period.
Even his own colleagues are starting to get restless. [
.] A number of them are clearly getting restless because they do not like to hear this. However, if they had been here to hear Bob Doris’s speech, they would have heard that there are sensible voices in their party who are willing to question—at least around the edges, as Rona Mackay also did at the end of her speech—whether everything is as rosy and perfect as we would like. I know that other members see these issues in their communities but feel, out of a sense of party loyalty, that they cannot raise them in public. Although that is disappointing, it is at least understandable.
As I am the sensible voice from the SNP benches that the member was drawing attention to, let me say that the crux of what I said is that we should back the senior phase review to test what is working well so that we can make improvements. I take it that, on that basis, the member supports the Government’s amendment and will back the Government’s position this evening.
I will not do that, because of some of the points that Bob Doris raised. We need to look at the broad general education as well, because, as he said, some decisions that are related to the senior phase start much earlier in school and it takes a long pathway before those changes can be made later.
I have had too many experiences of hearing the cabinet secretary promise something in this chamber and another thing happening in reality.
I welcome his commitment to publish the report on higher pass rates, but members should note with caution that he promised that partial information would be published rather than the full report. If he wants to publish the full report, I would be very happy to take an intervention to allow him to confirm that—but he is not going to bother, so there we go.
While some members blame the cabinet secretary, others try to blame local government. Then there are our favourites, whom we heard about from Murdo Fraser—those SNP politicians who would rather rubbish internationally accepted PISA scores. That is because, in SNP Scotland, absolutely nothing could be wrong. What is most worrying for me is that, even if we accept the crazy view that it is a crude measure, if PISA shows a problem, surely that is worth investigating. More embarrassing still is that anyone representing a party of government in Scotland could think that PISA is a comparison between us and China or South Korea when it actually looks at our performance now in comparison with our past performance.
Although it concerns me that we are failing to keep pace with other global leaders in education, it worries me more that we are failing to keep pace with ourselves and make progress, and that we are seeing absolutely no evidence of any significant benefit from recent reforms.
Today’s debate, which was once again held in Opposition party time—a point that has been raised again and again—offered the cabinet secretary yet another opportunity to hit the reset button not only in terms of policy but in terms of building the political consensus that is required to address the challenges that have been outlined today.
The motion asks simply for an acknowledgement that all is not well and that reviewing the senior phase in isolation is unlikely to resolve all the issues that have been identified and raised today. Given what we have heard, not just in today’s debate but from educational experts and the Education and Skills Committee, that should not be too much to ask for.
It is always possible to paper over the cracks and try to save face, but the problem for the SNP is that this problem is not going away. The Government cannot say that something is its top priority and then happily ignore the facts and allow young people to pay the price for its lack of leadership.
Perhaps we have got it all wrong and the cabinet secretary really is proud of having thousands fewer teachers in Scottish schools. Perhaps he is proud that young people cannot take the subjects that they want to take. Perhaps he is content that core, knowledge-based learning is diminished. Perhaps, when parents in his constituency come to him with concerns about learning support, he tells them that it is okay because we live in a progressive country and that equity and excellence are—at least notionally—at the heart of our education system.
I suppose that all of that is possible, because we have a cabinet secretary who is unable to accept the will of the Parliament—I think that we will see that at decision time—who is unable to concede any ground and who does not want to hear what members are saying. I am worried that that is the same treatment that parents, teachers and pupils get as he travels around the country. I ask him to think again and to reflect on what he has heard today.